U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other congressional leaders meet with President Joe Biden  in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 9, 2023.​

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other congressional leaders meet with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 9, 2023.

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

'Debt Limit Chicken' Is a Direct Result of Anti-Democratic US House Elections

"Brinkmanship and crises aren't random accidents in our democracy—they are inevitable outcomes of an electoral system that incentivizes and rewards them," says a new Fix Our House report.

Amid rising fears that Republican lawmakers could soon force a catastrophic U.S. default, Fix Our House on Wednesday released a report arguing that "Congress lacks the incentive structure necessary to responsibly handle crucial tasks like raising the debt limit."

The release comes between a pair of meetings at the White House. After sitting down with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday, President Joe Biden told reporters they plan to come together again on Friday.

Biden and congressional Democrats are calling for a clean bill and stressing that GOP lawmakers took action on the debt ceiling three times under former President Donald Trump. However, House Republicans continue to hold the global economy hostage, demanding massive spending cuts that would affect working families—as demonstrated by their recent passage of the so-called Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would increase the debt limit by $1.5 trillion or until March 31, 2024, whichever comes first.

Some fearful of a default—or even coming precariously close to one, given warnings that the deadline could be as soon as June 1—have pushed the president to take unilateral action, but Biden on Tuesday downplayed perhaps the most popular option: invoking part of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to keep paying the nation's bills.

"Just like in 2011 and 2013, Washington will hopefully find a way to avoid disaster. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Brinkmanship and crises aren't random accidents in our democracy—they are inevitable outcomes of an electoral system that incentivizes and rewards them," states the report from Fix Our House, which advocates for proportional representation.

The report—Debt Limit Chicken: Why Washington Plays Games With Disaster—criticizes "the winner-take-all election rules that make performative conflict easy and compromise difficult" along with calling for the creation of "a more functional electoral system that would disincentivize Congress from playing death-defying stunts with the full faith and credit of the U.S."

"The overwhelming majority of congressional districts are not competitive between the two parties," the report explains.

Citing another recently released Fix Our House publication, the document details that "90% of House elections last fall were decided by a margin greater than five percentage points. About 83% had a margin greater than 10 points. Landslides are normal; the average margin of victory in 2022 was 27.7% for Democrats and 30.2% for Republicans."

Although both parties have been accused of gerrymandering, since Republicans won narrow control of the House in the wake of redistricting last November—leading to a 222-213 divide in the lower chamber—experts have highlighted how current political maps served the GOP, and may continue to do so if they are not challenged in court.

The new report includes a section dedicated to the "five families" of the fractured House GOP: the Republican Study Committee, Republican Main Street Caucus, Republican Governance Group, Freedom Caucus, and Problem Solvers Caucus.

"As with the rest of the House, the overwhelming majority of the members of the five families don't face competitive general elections," the publication points out. "The average margin of victory for the members of each major caucus was a blowout election."

"In uncompetitive districts, the potential to be primaried is a much greater concern than a general election challenge," Fix Our House Co-Founder Lee Drutman said in a statement Wednesday. "That motivates representatives to focus on pleasing their voting base and disincentivizes compromise for fear of appearing too weak on 'the enemy."

"This problem is unique to America's outmoded system of single-member districts," Drutman added, "and it's only getting worse as urban-rural polarization makes it even harder to draw competitive districts."

As the report puts it, "gerrymandering is a huge problem," but it is not the only barrier to having 435 competitive districts.

"Rural voters are increasingly trending more to the right, and urban voters more to the left," the document says. "Voters are increasingly moving to places that better reflect their ideology. Red areas are getting redder, and blue areas are getting bluer."

"Even if the most fair-minded saints were drawing our congressional district maps, we would still have mostly uncompetitive districts," the report stresses. "And within the current system that we use to elect Congress, nothing can be done about it."

The report also emphasizes that "winner-take-all single-winner districts are not inevitable, and they are not in the Constitution."

In fact, "the Constitution specifically empowers Congress with the ability to change how its elections work, something Congress has done many times," the publication continues, urging federal lawmakers to pursue proportional representation.

Used by 80% of the world's democracies, proportional representation "disincentivizes binary conflict and showmanship and instead incentivizes coalition-building and compromise," the report states.

As the document explains:

Put simply, proportional representation is a system where a political party's share of votes in an election determines how many seats it holds in the legislature. Instead of each district electing one representative, a state divides into larger regions that each elect several representatives. The size of Congress—435 members—can be increased, or it can remain the same.

In a proportional system, voters can support multiple candidates, and each party wins seats in proportion to its share of the votes cast. For instance, if a region elects three representatives and the vote is 65% for Republicans and 35% for Democrats, it would elect two Republicans and one Democrat.

The existing U.S. system incentivizes "the us-vs-them conflict at the heart of the debt limit issue," the report concludes. "Thanks to the ever-escalating doom loop of polarization and dysfunction, the problem is worse than ever and will only grow more intractable. If we want to address this systemic problem, we need to look at systemic solutions."

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